BY JOSHUA MASEROW
Through intimate portraits of South Africans of all kinds, After Freedom reveals how the polarities, conflicts and ruptures of the past are the sine qua non of our vexed present. In this accessible and incisive diagnosis of post-apartheid South Africa, sociologists Katherine Newman and Ariane De Lannoy explore how “ordinary people, particularly the South Africans who came of age during the post-apartheid transition, see the country that is their birthright”. By theorising from the ground up, from the lived experience of several individual South Africans, who stand at “distinctive points on the spectrum of race and class in Cape Town”, they wonder aloud about the major themes of the new South Africa: racial animus, racial classification, reconciliation, class inequality, land ownership, privilege, and the limits placed on opportunity by the structural dispossessions installed in the past carried over into our nascent democracy.
After Freedom cannot be accused of being dour, homogeneous or straight-laced. It is variegated and polymorphous – almost kaleidoscopic in form. With great composure, it blends narrative, personal history, biography, and structural analysis into a fluid social ontology. Despite the wide thematic berth, it never loses sight of its guiding question: what is it like for the young of this country to negotiate the present non-racial democratic social order under the lingering effects of a destructive past?
A constant refrain of the book is the conundrum of post-apartheid social dislocation. History cannot be wiped clean. Ostensible solutions throw up additional problems, forging new lines of factional conflict: “where race was once the main dividing line, widening class differences – which were there in the past, but submerged under race – have added layers of complexity”.
With its penchant for mixing narration (a little overblown at times), oral history, photography, historical analysis and social critique, the book’s trans-disciplinary verve makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and troubling read. It traces the living stories and textured histories of Thandiswa, Amanda, Ambrose, Daniel, Anna and Brandon (as well as a panoply of secondary characters) which distil the fault lines that rut South African society and articulate the new, porous identities emerging from the frenzied admixture of modernity, custom, capitalism, democracy and globalisation.
Newman and De Lannoy coax their interlocutors, the protagonists of the book, to reflect on the conditions of their own psycho-social existence: a self-reflective peeling back of the layers of anger and trauma which mark the lives of all encumbered by apartheid. By moving from the personal predicaments of these ordinary subjects to the historical making of their lives, this ethnography enumerates how the structural inequities of legislated Apartheid, together with global capitalism, continue to dispossess young South Africans 20 years after the arrival of democracy in a social order that is far from an open opportunity society.
While it lacks the argumentative rigour and academic ardour of other recently published titles which cast an inquisitive gaze at democratic South Africa, the book does bring into full view the dispersal of attitudes towards the relative difficulties of being black, white and coloured, female and male, rich or poor in a society where the intertwining of race, class and gender continue to dictate how (well) one lives.